Today marks the fifteenth anniversary of the opening of the prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It is an anniversary I had hoped would never happen. Most people thought Guantanamo would close after President Obama announced on his second day in office that he would shutter the prison within a year. He repeated his pledge to close the prison three more times during his tenure. Yet, today, Guantanamo continues to be a black stain on America and negates our claim to be a global leader in human rights and the rule of law. When America accuses other countries of human rights violations, their leaders point to Guantanamo in response.
Over the past fifteen years, public interest and information about Guantanamo has been scarce. Since Donald Trump announced that he will “load [Guantanamo] up with some bad dudes,” the prison has been back in the news.
For the past nine years, “Witness to Guantanamo” has created the world’s most comprehensive collection of filmed stories about the prison camp at the U.S. naval base in Cuba. We have interviewed 146 people in 20 countries. Fifty-one of the interviewees are former detainees. We have also filmed interviews with prison guards, interrogators, interpreters, medical personnel, lawyers and high-ranking military and government officials who have worked in Guantanamo or on Guantanamo issues. We are the only organization in the world recording the voices and faces of one of the most important events in the 21st century for history.
Fifteen years ago today, on Jan. 11, 2002, the first 20 (out of 780) men were dragged and marched onto an American military jet wearing orange jumpsuits, blackened goggles, earmuffs, masks, mittens and woolen caps. Ruhal Ahmed, a former detainee from England, described how their legs and arms were shackled in what was called a “three-piece suit,” with a belly chain and leg irons digging into their legs, their hands tightly shackled to their waists. Their chains were padlocked to the floor and a strap was put over their chest so that they could not move forward. Some of the lucky men were given drugs to manage the brutal 18-hour ride to Guantanamo.
When the plane landed, the men were hauled onto a ferry and then a bus to their first home, Camp X-ray. Brandon Neely, one of the guards present that first day described awaiting the first busload of detainees, who his command assured him would “kill your family in a heartbeat.” He watched the first man hobble off the bus on one leg. The marines tossed his prosthetic leg out after him.
Camp X-ray was an outdoor facility that has been compared to dog kennels. There were two buckets, one was for water and the other was a honey bucket. There was no shelter from the heat or the elements. Ayub Muhammed, former detainee and Uyghur from the Xinjiang region of China, told us that when he was first brought to his cell, he thought it was a stopover for him to use the toilet.
A study published in 2006 that relied exclusively on government records and documents concluded that 55 percent of the detainees had not committed any hostile acts at all against the U.S. Only 8 percent were characterized as al Qaeda fighters. And, no more than 5 percent had been captured by U.S. forces.
Rather than being captured, most of the men in Guantanamo were purchased. After 9/11, the U.S. dropped flyers over Afghanistan offering bounties between $3,000 and $30,000 for turning in “Al Qaeda and Taliban murderers.” One flyer read, “Get wealth and power beyond your dreams.” Another said, “This is enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life.” Afghans and Pakistanis not only sold Arab strangers in their communities to the U.S. military, they sold tribal enemies.
Once the men were brought to Guantanamo, we physically and psychologically tortured them. We maced and viciously beat them. We subjected them to sexual violations and assaults. We deprived them of sleep in what the military called the “frequent flyer program,” where men were transferred from cell to cell every 2-3 hours. We kept them in long-term isolation and solitary confinement. According to former U.N. Rapporteur for Torture, Juan Mendez, “isolation is coercion and impermissible in international law.” We subjected them to harsh force-feeding procedures in violation of the World Medical Association’s Malta Declaration. Most notably, we held nearly all the men without charges for more than a dozen years. No other country in the world has held prisoners during wartime for as long.
When Obama leaves office, there will likely be 26 “forever” prisoners in Guantanamo who may never leave and die there. They have never been charged with a crime, but are considered too dangerous to release. The evidence against them has been compromised by torture and they cannot be prosecuted. Four to five other men have been cleared for release by six federal agencies, but remain after nearly 14 years. There are also three men who were convicted in a military tribunal and seven whose prosecutions in the tribunals have been proceeding for the past decade.
On Jan. 20, Donald Trump will lead this country. Given his rhetoric, it is doubtful he will release the men who have been cleared, much less release the forever prisoners. Nor will he shutter the prison. Instead, Donald Trump has said that he would be willing to bring American citizens to Guantanamo for trial. Current law forbids the trial of Americans in Guantanamo, but with the help of the Republican majority in Congress, Trump can reverse the law.
Recently, Trump warned Obama not to release any of the men left in Guantanamo. Trump claimed that these “are extremely dangerous people and should not be allowed back onto the battlefield” – either unaware or undeterred that most of them were never captured on the battlefield.
There was a time when people around the world looked to the U.S. as the beacon of human rights and the rule of law. No more. I thought that Obama would keep to his word and shutter the prison. Our collection of interviews would then be archived for future policy makers, historians, scholars and the public -- in the hope that Guantanamo would never be repeated. But, instead, Obama chose to invest his political capital elsewhere. And, now, with Donald Trump at the helm, the work of Witness to Guantanamo seems far from done.